dir John Milius

The other film I got last week besides these two was in ways a perfectly appropriate choice. On the one hand, Lucas talks on the Kurosawa disc about how it was Milius who first really got him into the Japanese director, and in his commentary for the film Milius specifically name checks him as well as Bergman. Meanwhile, the success of Star Wars doubtless indirectly helped in Conan getting made in the first place — though Dino Di Laurentiis must have been regarding it as a bit of a crap shoot since his own big ticket attempt as splashy pulp sci-fi in Flash Gordon was more light than heat (still looked gorgeous at least).

Anyway, I found Conan used (actually a two-sided DVD with the sequel on the other side, but frankly I can wait on that) and remembered how last time I saw the film — and the first time in many, many years — was on a flight over to London about a year ago, as mentioned in this ILE thread, and that however tired I felt I was honestly surprised by the decent quality of the film. I said then it wasn’t a great film but it was a damned good one, and I’m inclined to be even more positive about it now with a better sense of the reasons why it works.

Some posts on that thread say it well enough, but to give it my own spin — one reason why the film had fared somewhat lamely in my memory was due to the many, MANY ripoffs in its wake. In that regard Milius had his own Star Wars-level impact in that so much of what passed for ‘sword and sorcery’ films through the eighties and beyond was dullard, cheap nonsense — most of the time not even amusingly bad, though the MST3K crew rescued three in the form of Cave Dwellers, The Outlaw and Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell, each of which resulted in prime examples of hilarity and each of which followed a general model set up by Milius and company.

What makes Conan an actually pretty grand film results from what was brought to bear on it, though — some films have a good ensemble cast (and this is actually one of them), but this is a movie with a good ensemble creative team. Not to mention a spectacular setting at that — the whole thing was filmed in Spain, and I don’t think any English-language film, at least, made such good use of the outdoors when it came to ‘fantasy’ as a broad genre term until Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings. While Spanish landscapes had already long been used by many filmmakers — the spaghetti westerns most obviously — Conan showcases many different areas and places, from snow-capped mountains to flat steppe-like areas to weird tortured hills and deserted shores. Cinematographer Duke Callaghan may not have the most extensive or impressive resume but he earned his money here, and at no point does it seem like we are anywhere but the convoluted never-never land of Robert E. Howard’s creation, where any sort of historical hoohah washes up against each other, Vikings and Mongols, Egyptians and pagans.

Then there’s the music by Basil Poledouris, which could warrant an essay on its own. Reworking both the grandiose Hollywood traditions of epic/ancient/’alien’ music and more than a little Carl Orff without actually using “Carmina Burana,” the result is a lush, approachable bombasticism, if that makes any sense. Unlike, say, John Williams’ Wagnerian drama for Lucas, keyed in scene for scene, Poledouris is often creating source music without an obvious source — it’s little surprise some of the strongest moments occur in scenes involving rituals or activities of the snake cult led by Thulsa Doom, where no musicians are seen but there’s no way that the activities could be shown without the chanting and drumming and horn/string-led pomp. It’s fascinating to note how the film is edited around those moments — Poledouris isn’t interested in matching his music to the pace of the scene so much as the setting, making the contrast between his work and, say, Conan’s dispatch of the huge snake or the building up of the attack on the ritual orgy/cannibal dinner at once disconcerting and a bit refreshing.

And finally the best stroke of genius was something at once perfectly obvious and brilliantly handled — the lead character doesn’t talk much. Schwarznegger’s non-acting acting is its own established motif now, and the sheer interchangeability of so many of his roles proves it — there’s a reason why he just seemed to disappear into a stream of is-it-even-worth-shrugging-at efforts in the last few years building up to his more high-profile job he currently holds. Only James Cameron and Milius have taken the right approach, it appears — concentrate on his ability to stoically brood, keep what he says to a minimum (and to his credit, Schwarznegger didn’t appear to mind that at all where many other screen figures would have a fit), and let everyone else take care of the exposition and discussion. And thus the wiseness of a solid ensemble cast — James Earl Jones, of course, but Gerry Lopez as the wry, wiry Subotai, Sandahl Bergman’s no-nonsense Valeria, the just-right-enough-scenery-chewing from Mako, Max Von Sydow’s anguished, angry king. Conan fits in among these characters just as needed, and even they aren’t always saying everything and anything — it’s not needed, the script is kept economical.

And for all that, though, Milius is clearly out to Make a Point or at least some points, as his occasionally garrulous commentary on the DVD shows (Schwarznegger in contrast is a bizarro ninja of the obvious with his comments — “Oh yeah, this is the scene where we meet Sandahl, an important scene” — yeah THANKS dude now go balance a budget and ensure my paycheck please). So while it’s economical Milius is doing his best to pack in ideas into the smallest possible space — the Bergman meets Kurosawa comment he makes becomes clearer as a result. It’s not quite Yojimbo Meets Death Over Chess, perhaps, but again taking just enough cues from the original Howard tales he fashions up a great pop-culture take on existentialism, of a meaty and sweaty variety. Nietzsche’s “That which does not kill us” quote opens the film, the first extended speech from a character is Conan’s father telling the young boy that the only thing one can trust is steel rather than people, and perhaps most brilliantly the soliloquy from Conan to his god Crom — an absolutely absent figure, never personalized or anthromorphized, and quite easily read as nonexistent. Thus the sharpness of the prayer, an invocation for help that concludes with a mocking dismissal should that help not arrive.

Then there’s the whole subtext about cults and followers — Milius mentions briefly in the commentary about how he drew on the Jim Jones cult and the suicide in Guyana for part of the inspiration of the Thulsa Doom element, and it’s the workings of the cult which lead not only to some of the best big-budget elements of the film (the temple set into the hillside, the astonishingly beautiful scene where the camera rises up behind Doom to look down on hundreds of people bearing torches) but also a clear-enough riff on something which at the time must have been severely troubling a number of people, even if only as a folk demon. My old English teacher, an unreconstructed but more formally dressed hippie, showed our class the film in the mid-eighties precisely because he wanted us to consider at as anti-cult film — he was grinding no moralistic axe, rather it was part of his own oft-stated attempt to make us all think for ourselves. One of Jones’s standout scenes is where he talks about the difference in strength between steel and flesh and judges the latter stronger when he is able to easily and simply persuade one of his followers to commit suicide without a moment’s hesitation. It’s almost over in a flash, there’s no music, Jones doesn’t even dwell on it — it’s possibly the best moment in the movie.

Now if only they had gotten Milius in to do Conan the Destroyer.